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Body cams: A useful tool, if used wisely

Law enforcement officials across the state are anxiously watching the state Legislature’s attempt to craft guidelines for the use of body cams by law enforcement officials.
 
There is no doubt that body cams can be a useful tool. Video captures reality, and it could help prevent the often befuddling he-said, she-said testimonies that create headaches for judges and juries.
 
But accuracy regarding an event is only one issue facing legislators as they debate the proper use of body cams.
 
First and foremost is the issue of privacy. Anything that occurs on public property is considered in the “public domain” and exempt from expectations of privacy. That is why reporters can video tape or photograph accidents, fires and other events — and why any bystander has the right to video tape or photograph anything on public property and post it to social media.
 
Because squad cameras operate in the public domain,  namely streets and highways, the use of those cameras have not been nearly as controversial as the proposed use of body cams.
 
The question is: is it legal, ethical and moral for an officer to video tape an incident on private property; in particular, within private residences?
 
Some protectors argue that an officer should have express permission from the resident before switching on a camera. Or have a warrant in hand.
 
Others argue that privacy is forfeited if an officer has to enter a home because of illegal activity.
 
We believe permission should be granted before an officer is allowed to record a witness statement or activity. Without that safeguard, we are one step away from the “Big Brother is watching” constant surveillance that George Orwell predicted was coming in his novel “1984.”
 
And, of course, there are questions of who gets to view any video recorded by a body cam. Can the press access it? Can any member of the public?
 
And how is that material archived and preserved? Is it open to editing? Can a hacker break into a database and steal the material?
These are all tough questions the Legislature is trying to tackle.
 
There is no doubt that body cams can be useful tools — both for law enforcement and the public it serves. But let’s use them both wisely and cautiously.  
 
   — L.C.